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Niello Decorated Silver

The technique of decorating silver with the black metallic compound known as Niello can be traced as far back as both the ancient Egyptian and Roman times. However, the majority of examples found tend to originate from Russia with the majority being produced during the 19th through to the early 20th century. Some of the finest examples were produced in the Velikiy Ustyug region of Russia and typically incorporate depictions of towns, landscapes, architectural scenes or florally inspired designs. The town of Tula in Russia is especially renowned for its niello work which accounts for the reason why it is sometimes alternatively referred to as ‘Tula’ silver.

Production and repair

The process of creating niello involves fusing lead, sulphur and copper together with silver. The niello is then applied to the decoratively engraved, etched or embossed areas of the silver object often to great contrasting effect. Taking into account the range of components required in the alloy, the niello colour from item to item often varies ranging from a dark grey to a deep black tone. Usually the amount of sulphur provided is what predominantly affects this. Therefore, in the context of repairing niello decoration, great care has to be taken to produce the same recipe in order to match the tone correctly and hence requires someone who is a specialist in this field.

Collecting niello decorated silver

The value of niello decorated articles is usually determined by the quality of the engraved detail, the condition of the niello and the presence of hallmarks. Niello decoration can be found applied to a wide range of silver objects such as snuff boxes, compacts, jewellery, pocket watch cases, belt buckles, flatware and drinking vessels, through to much larger items such as serving trays, swords and pistols.

If you have any silver you would like to sell or have valued, please contact Robin Newcombe, silver specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent for further details.